Sheep Peep: Blow your mind, not your budget
Christa Glennie Seychew
One of the oddest aspects of my job is the large number of calls and emails I receive from out-of-towners in need of recommendations for dinner, wedding venues, and caterers. The most frequent version of this request is from folks looking for restaurants that can accommodate dietary restrictions—veganism, vegetarianism, and celiac-friendly chief among them.
For many years I sent all three of those kinds of people to one place: Bistro Europa.
Owned by Steven and Ellen Gedra, the tiny Elmwood restaurant was a haven for enthusiastic eaters of all types, even those who weren’t at all interested in meat. But if you Google up chef Steve’s name or Bistro Europa, you will find hundreds of articles and images featuring pork. As an early adopter of Buffalo’s farm-to-table movement, Gedra unintentionally (but not begrudgingly) became known as Buffalo’s Pork King (or Porcine Prince, as I prefer). It makes sense. A tiny, 25-seat restaurant processing, curing, storing, and using a 300-pound pasture–raised heritage breed pig twice a month is going to translate to a porky menu, albeit a wildly adventurous one.
“I never started out wanting to be the pig guy,” says Gedra. “But you have to get creative because you want to use all of the animal and use it in a way that honors how good it is. Between that and our charcuterie program, it’s easy to be the pig guy, but I do other things.”
Gedra doesn’t blame his fans for his bacon-scented pigeonhole. Bistro Europa was so loved and successful, that last fall the couple opened The Black Sheep on Buffalo’s Connecticut Street, less than a year after shuttering the Bistro. The new place was not just a move and an overhaul of an old building, but also a massive expansion; nearly tripling the number of seats the duo and their staff could feed each night.
They opened the doors of The Sheep to much excitement. Fans were thrilled to regain access to the Gedras’ killer pork chops, delicate pierogi, house-baked bread with whipped lardo, sticky toffee pudding, and other longtime favorites.
Having temporarily halted his unrivaled access to farm fresh ingredients during construction, and mired in the challenge of a brand new kitchen and massive number of new staff members, The Sheep came out of the gate with a dialed down menu, nixing its previous lunch service and focusing on the tried and true. And man, were we happy.
But we missed a little something too. Steve is a man who wrangles global spices with a bravery that sometimes makes you question his sanity. That special made with twelve unknown seasonings the server rattles off tableside might seem a bit daunting. If you’re not a regular and you don’t know the Gedras’ food, you may even think there’s a young chef in the kitchen that is out of his depth. Until, of course, said dish created with the previously recited seasonings shows up at your table, smelling like the warm breezes of Shangri-La and tasting like it was conjured by a shaman.
Vegetables are an ideal vehicle for Gedra’s skill set. “If you think about all the vegetables, well, there’s just a huge draw pool you can draw from, they are so different in flavor and texture. It really pushes my creativity," he says. A long, cold winter coupled with two of his main veggie farmer's greenhouses collapsing during the November snowstorm limited his access to fresh, local produce.
So the new menu had less magic and more delicious comfort, which is not a bad trade at all, unless you are the type that was accustomed to a little Gedra mysticism with your dinner. Being in the throes of “new restaurant” required the Gedras to keep it simple—well, their version of simple, which meant scratchmade and locally-sourced everything. If you don’t know, opening a new restaurant is similar to the first few sleepless, stress-fueled months of being a first-time parent, but the hours are worse, the stakes feel higher, and neighbors keep showing up at 5 p.m. Today the newborn Black Sheep is really a toddler, up and walking around, climbing the furniture, sassing back, and making sure you know who is boss.
Truth be told, I never stopped sending vegetarians, vegans, and celiac-sufferers to Gedra, because a phone call was all it took to accommodate their needs in a manner that supersedes much of the bland and unimaginative “vegetarian” food available in our meat-centric city. But now it's the height of WNY’s growing season, and Steve has emerged from nearly a year of fine-tuning The Sheep’s operation to bless us all with a bevy of vegetable-focused, flavor-infused dishes that will blow your mind, but not your budget.
Take a peek.
Oles Kohlrabi — $6 (pictured above)
Kohlrabi poached in turmeric, dsi cinnamon, cardamom, and charnushka is topped with green harissa, (a thick sauce of jalapeno, cilantro, lime, caraway, and oil), White Cow Dairy yogurt with sumac, burnt citrus, and duukkah, a spice mixture with components that vary quite a bit, but in this instance, it means a combination of toasted pistachio, sesame seeds, coriander, cumin, and salt.
Gedra explains that while kohlrabi is an ingredient commonly found in Italian, German, and Eastern European cooking, he really wanted to spin it a little, and do something more Middle Eastern in nature.
Squash Zucchini, Fava, Tomato — $9
Fava beans pureed with salt, olive oil, and lemon balm stuffed inside ribbons of raw zucchini and yellow squash, speckled with tomato caviar and chimichurri sauce, bronze fennel, sea salt, and lemon balm.
This modernist-leaning plating is pretty atypical for Gedra, but beautiful nonetheless. The simple ingredients are bolstered by the chimichurri, and the rich fava bean puree provides an underlying sense of satisfaction a light veggie dish might otherwise be without.
Squash Blossom with Pullet Egg— $9
Squash blossoms stuffed with a local pullet egg and tempura fried. Served with tomato crema.
The tomato crema’s notes of basil and sherry vinegar cut through the insanely decadent combination of soft egg yolk and crispy, crunchy tempura batter.
Roasted Beet— $6
Roasted beet served with whipped bleu cheese, honey, and lemon. The cheese changes based on availability, but on this visit it was Fourme d’Ambert sourced from Steve’s sister Jill, who owns Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile.
The earthy beet and bright bleu cheese are heightened by the grassy, slightly bitter freshness of the endive and dill; a very hearty dish.
Sunflower head braised in garlic, white wine, olive oil, sea salt and thyme, covered in housemade ricotta and crisp lemony breadcrumbs. Served with raisin caper vinaigrette.
This dish comes to Sheep courtesy of Steve’s friend, Boston chef Chuck Draghi. You never knew you wanted braised sunflower, but trust me, you do. This dish is one of my all-time favorites, and it has a very limited season, so pop in for one soon.
Chard, Nuts, Raisins —$6
Swiss chard topped with jasmine and chamomile-steeped golden raisins and a sauce of roasted pistachios, thyme, garlic, and shallot.
The Italian classic done just a little bit better.
Carrots — $3
Yellow Golden Hour carrots braised in soy, black vinegar, ginger, galangal, and fish sauce, served with carrot top pesto and bagna cauda, an anchovy emulsion.
A simple and very tasty way to begin a meal!
Currently Black Sheep sources produce from Native Offerings, Plato Dale, Golden Hour Farm, Tony Weiss, Promised Land CSA, Dan Tower, and Erdle Farm. Just a few months ago the back lot of the restaurant was converted to raised beds and will supply much of the restaurant’s greens, herbs, and more for years to come. Lucky us.
The Black Sheep
367 Connecticut Street, Buffalo
Christa Glennie Seychew is Spree's senior editor.